On July 1st of 1969, Jeff Sauer was hired as the first full-time assistant hockey coach at Wisconsin. On January 9th of 2002, Sauer announced he would retire as Wisconsin’s head hockey coach at the end of that season.
In between those years, Jeff spent 31 years as a head coach including 11 years at Colorado College and 20 years at Wisconsin.
Sauer’s list of accomplishments with the Badgers is very impressive. His teams won two NCAA Championships during the 1982-83 and 1989-90 seasons. With the 1983 title, Jeff became the first coach in college history to win a national championship in his first year as the head coach.
His 489 wins at Wisconsin makes him the winningest coach in Badger history in any sport. Jeff’s record of four 30 + win seasons is the most of any UW coach. His teams finished in the top three in the WCHA 14 times, and 17 of his players earned All-American honors.
Sauer is also known as “the Dean” of WCHA coaches. He is the only person in the league to coach 31 years. He still holds the record for games coached in the league with 1,244. His 655 wins places him eighth on the NCAA all-time win list.
The introduction of Badger Hockey Showdown tournament was one of Jeff’s many other accomplishments while coaching the Badgers. He notes that there were several reasons he thought it would be a great idea.
At that time, the home Badger games were hosted at the Dane County Coliseum, and Milwaukee had recently unveiled the Bradley Center, a new first-class NHL-style facility. Jeff felt that getting his team involved with a big-time atmosphere would be good for them, and additionally, for the fans. He also felt that playing in Milwaukee would give the Badgers another opportunity to develop a secondary fan base, and that by playing good teams would give his team a jump start on the second half of the WCHA season.
The one challenge to starting the Showdown was to sell Joel Maturi and Otto Breitenbach of the Athletic Department on moving two home games away from Madison. Joel and Otto liked the idea, however, and in 1989, the first Badger Hockey Showdown was held.
Minnesota Duluth, Boston College, and Notre Dame joined Wisconsin in the first tournament field. The Badgers beat Boston College 6-3 in the championship game, and more than 30,000 fans had turned out for the two-day event.
Over the next five years, the Badger Hockey Showdown attracted nationally-ranked teams like North Dakota, Maine, Boston College, Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State.
All five of those Showdown tournaments drew more than 32,000 fans, including the record year of 1992 when 35,382 people turned out to watch Boston University, Boston College, Miami Ohio, and the Badgers. Boston University ultimately beat Wisconsin 6-3 in the championship game.
The first time attendance dropped below the 30,000 mark was in 1995. The smallest attendance was 13, 966 in 2002, the last year the Badger Hockey Showdown was held at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
Attendance has picked up since the tournament was moved back to the Kohl Center in Madison in 2003. In the last seven years, the Showdown has averaged more than 25,000 fans.
Looking back on what happened, you can identify several key factors that definitely had an impact on the tournament.
Let’s start with the success of the football team. During the first five years the Showdown was held Wisconsin, the football team did not go to a bowl game. That gave fans the opportunity to go to Milwaukee and watch the hockey team.
In 1994, that changed when the Badgers went to their first of three Rose Bowls. In fact, since then, Wisconsin has gone to 13 bowl games, including this season.
Another reason for the drop in attendance may be the tremendous growth Badger basketball has experienced under Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan. Over the years, some basketball fans watched the hockey team because they were a winning team, and when basketball turned around, some drifted back to there favorite sport.
Also, seeing the success Wisconsin was having with the tournament, some other universities started their own holiday events. That meant it was more difficult to get as many top-ranked teams as in the past.
This year’s tournament marked the 20th anniversary of the Badger Hockey Showdown. During that time, more than half a million fans have watched the Badgers win 10 tournament titles, including this year’s shootout-victory over Lake Superior State. Both Wisconsin and Jeff Sauer can be proud of that success.
With New Years upon us, I would like to propose a toast by all Badger hockey fans to Jeff Sauer.
Jeff --Congratulations on all your accomplishments at Wisconsin, and thank you for all you have done for Badger Hockey, but most importantly here’s to you for being a man of great integrity and a person that many Badger hockey fans, myself included, are very proud to call a friend……. Cheers!